It was after my first week in the University that I explored the Mystic Archives.
Bolor had given me only a quick show of it, the lower floor where Cyrodiilic literature and more common books were held. I found myself smiling at the musty scent of books and dust, running my fingers along ridged spines, raised letters. Yesterday’s lecture still echoing fresh in my mind I slipped The Wild Elves beneath my arm, curling in one of the plush chairs. One of the few unclaimed, maybe because of the odd charred spot on the arm. Probably a destruction apprentice showing off got a bit too enthusiastic. The past few days so busy it was only too easy now to while away the hours, time on my hands with lectures ended for the week. Outside, heavy clouds hanging like wool blankets and a gentle lullaby of rain heralded a lazy day.
It was closer to, and somehow farther from my little nook than I'd ever imagined.
I glanced up at the rasp of a voice, blinking back my surprise as an Argonian gazed heavy-lidded at me. She smiled, baring sharp teeth, words hissing along her tongue as she spoke. "I need to fix up that chair, apprentice."
"Oh, of course!" I leapt to my feet, turning to watch as she bent over the charred cushioning and swept it clean in a brush of magicka. She hemmed, fingering the remaining scar and frowning as cotton hung on her claw.
"Foolish apprentices. No offense, of course. I'm just sick and tired of having to clean up after them, day after day." She grumbled, more to herself than me. "Is it so much to ask? No eating in the stacks. Neat. Quiet."
I thought of the biscuit I'd been munching while reading earlier and swallowed. "Ah. I suppose not."
"Exactly! I appreciate magicka just as much as the rest, but setting furniture on fire is just a touch ridiculous." I bit my lip, listening rather helplessly to her lecture as she fiddled with the burn, this time releasing a puff of white smoke and a hiss of a curse. "I am sorry, apprentice, I've just had a rough day. And..." She mumbled something I didn't quite catch, fixated on the stubborn soot mark.
"Bergamot seeds and a bit of vinegar might draw that out." I spoke before I'd realized I had, going dumb as she gave me a glance with a frown. "Uh. Sorry."
"No, I believe you may be right. Alchemy isn't my strong suit, but vinegar certainly has cleaning properties around the home." She smiled, relief washing warm over me. "What's your name, apprentice?"
"Dust. I, I just arrived here a few days ago." I hadn’t quite mastered my shyness around all these new faces, not yet, just hoping a smile would make up for it. “From Jehenna in High Rock.”
"Ah, yes. I remember Bolor giving you the tour." She chuckled, shaking her head while her headpiece rang delicately around her fins. "Rogue of a Dunmer. Don't let him lead you astray, mm?"
I joined in her laugh, relaxing. "I won't. He has quite the sense of humour."
"That he does. Quite personable, too. If it weren't for his Necromancy..."
"Then I'd be a spectacular example of a well-behaved, boring little puppet, now wouldn't I, Tar-Meena?"
"Savel!" Tar-Meena and I jumped in unison, she barking at him with a glare. "If you don't get rid of that damned charm, I will. That ring just makes it easier for you to cause trouble." She frowned as he pulled it off, slipping it in his pocket with a sly smirk. "And wipe that smile off your face."
"Yes, Master-Wizard." He snickered, a hand on my shoulder. I'd grown used to it, these past days - touch was one of his ways of speaking, and I'd become fond of that quickly. "A thousand apologies, each and every one without a hint of sincerity. This ring is an old gift, you know." He raised a brow. "A Telvanni friend of mine. I wouldn't want to offend him, that's for damn sure."
"Of course we wouldn't." She rolled her eyes, turning to me with a kind smile. "I'll leave the chair, then. Or maybe you'd like to help?"
"Of course!" I fiddled with my sleeve, her title echoing in mind. "Master-Wizard."
"Don't feel obliged," Bolor warned. "Tar-Meena frightens off enough apprentices as is."
"Oh, hush." Tar-Meena snickered.
Friends. It astonished me, how easily the two got along. Humans were common in High Rock, the other races not so much. A Dunmer and an Argonian - all I'd ever read had claimed them enemies. But they were obviously colleagues and friends with the jokes they shared, their grins. Only when I went to leave by Bolor’s side did Tar-Meena's smile slip away.
"Yes?" He turned, his hand on my back. Tar-Meena only raised a brow, face so different yet the expression somehow utterly like Madame Tucket. Disapproving , right down to the narrowed eyes and raised brow.
"Oh, don't make that face. I know perfectly well what I'm doing." Bolor scoffed, both of them ignoring my confusion. "She'll be by tomorrow to help." He shook his head, his smile slipping only for a moment before he met my eye. "There's a fascinating lecture on death rites and lore tomorrow morning, you know. Taught by a very handsome Dunmer.”
"Wonderful." I laughed, shrugging off the strange ending with Tar-Meena and hurrying beside him. "I'll be there."
I shouldn’t be in here. I know that immediately, even as innocuous as the room seems, sunlit and silent. A key heavy in my palm, the taste of wormwood vague but bitter in my mouth. I want to run but my feet move me forward instead, past the imposing desk and shelves that seem to rise up beyond sight to that panel in the wall. It creaks as I edge in my fingers, pull it aside, feeling the dread growing in my belly but unable to stop myself.
No. No. They tumble out one after another, grinning, sightless. I can’t make them stop coming. I try to push the panel closed again but there’s too many, rolling and clattering onto the floor, sickeningly crunching as I try to push them in. Skull after skull toppling in front of me and I know, I just know they won’t stop, I’ll suffocate in a sea of bone and I inhale deep to scream -
I awoke with a gasp, cold sweat in a sheen down my skin. Dragging my palm over my face I blinked away grit to meet Bolor's lidded gaze. He sighed, resting his long fingers on my shoulder with his voice kept to a whisper. "Just a dream, apprentice. There are potions you could brew that could help, you know."
"I know." I mumbled, groaning as I pulled myself from the blankets to sit up properly. Gentle snores came from all around us, Bolor's face shadowed and strange in candlelight. "Maman always said dreams are important, though. What are you doing here?"
"Came to talk," Bolor said simply, hoisting himself onto my bed. "I couldn't sleep, either. Bad dreams. Comes with the territory. For you, though." He smiled wryly, sweeping a lock of hair from my eyes. "Perhaps the wine just sat badly with you. Quite a celebration, eh?"
"Yes." I laughed, the details of the dream - dread, skulls, secrets - evaporating with the warmth I always felt when Bolor was near. "Twenty, now. I don't feel any different."
Twenty. A full year had passed since I left home, escaped to the Arcane University and found a new life, here. New friends – in Tar-Meena, always happy to work with me stocking the shelves or mourning the state of the Archives, quick to joke and tease with a drink in her hand. With Bolor, quicker still than she and always nudging me to ideas I never would have considered, new perspectives I embraced, always happy to walk the grounds and talk for hours about nothing at all.
There was homesickness, yes, but joy, too. Laughter and triumph and growth. I’d needed this - like taking a plant from a too-small pot so it could stretch its roots and flourish.
I don’t regret it. The thought rang true and I smiled to myself. Not for a second.
"Oh, it'll catch up with you." Bolor’s murmur brought me back to the moment, a secret amusement in his eyes. "But not yet. You said you were born under the Serpent, yes? And that would explain the dreams." He continued at my nod. "A certain fascination of mine, the firmament. The Serpent - most blessed, and most cursed."
"I suppose." It did seem to make sense, my life always seeming to be barreling between two extremes - joy in the poverty of High Rock, misery in my stepfather's mansion. Here, at least, I felt like I’d found balance. I sighed, curling my legs beneath me and smoothing my nightgown over my legs. "What about you, then? What were you born under?"
"The Lover, of course." Bolor smirked, a little twitch of a smile and a gleam in his eye that always made me laugh. "Charming and graceful, handsome, kind..."
"And humble," I cut him off with a grin. "Generous. The necklace was a fine gift." I fingered the thin silver chain around my neck, feeling its tingle of magicka. He had given it to me after our little celebration, after splitting a bottle of wine between my dearest friends while watching the autumn sun set. Tar-Meena seemed caught between amusement and exasperation at it all, and I mimicked her gaze now as I met Bolor's eye. "The Lover. How old are you, then?"
Bolor stiffened, indignant. "I'm afraid that is none of your concern, my dear Apprentice.” He chuckled, taking the simple silver chain between his fingers, his knuckle brushing across my throat. "You look lovely in this. It’s enchanted - the same effects of a protection spell."
I grinned. "Don't change the subject, old man."
"You little - " He cackled, gently pushing me onto the bed. I closed my eyes, trying to laugh quietly as the snores and rustles around us reminded me where we were. My breath caught as he moved over me, smiling down at me as he idly played with my necklace. He paused, eyes dark and intense. Gods, they were intense, somehow impossible to look away from as I felt my face turn red. His weight on mine was light and deliberate, blanketing me as he chuckled. “Maybe not as ornate as the jewels expected for a Marquess...”
"You ass!” Sputtering laughter in spite of myself. “ I never should have told you tha - " My teasing retort faltered as he dragged his finger along my throat, sending a sweet shiver through me. "I don't - I never really..." By the Nine. When did it get so hard to breathe? His free hand slid under the small of my back, his lips curling at my hitch of breath.
“Much too late now, my dear.” He flashed that smile again, that knee-weakening smile I’d secretly admired over the year I’d known him. “Forgive me, but I think you are a far better scholar than you would have been a Marquess. I’m glad you came here.” A soft chuckle. “Ah, but listen to me carry on. Happy birthday, Dust.”
"Thank you," I whispered, my voice trembling. I felt dizzy again, like that goblet of wine was still in my hand and warming my blood as he leaned closer still. "I. Um. I..."
"You are lovely when you blush." He grinned, moving his hand to cup my cheek, thumb brushing over my lip.
We were silent, for a moment that felt like an eternity. Caught in a strange web of honey-spun sweetness, something so new, so bright and intoxicating, and yet it felt utterly natural. I sighed as he relaxed gently on me, his smile crooked.
"You should thank me properly for the gift, you know."
I blinked, confused and aroused and by Talos his hand trailing down my stomach felt nice. "It was a birthday gift."
"Yes, I suppose it was." He raised a brow, laughing in his throat. "Then allow me to put it this way - I'll give you another."
He pulled me up to him, just slightly, and crushed his lips to mine. I panicked inside, because dammit I didn't know what I was supposed to do, but our noses fit perfectly together and his hands moved over my waist, leaving tingling trails in their wake. He tasted bitter burning sweet still from the wine, his smell simply soap and smoke, and heat, and hope, and...
I whimpered in my throat, closing my eyes tight at his laugh, as he deepened the kiss and urged my lips to part. His hand slid lower then stopped, his breath sweeping down my neck as he moved away with a sigh.
"Ah, Dust." He smiled wryly, laying a gentle kiss on my brow. I bit my lip. Why did he stop? "I should get to sleep, and so should you. This should remain between us. Mages and Apprentices are not encouraged to interact so - intimately.”
So that's it? I gulped, sitting up proper as he moved away. He must have caught the sadness and confusion in my gaze because he smiled, giving a kind laugh.
"We aren't finished, however. I expect we shall continue our lessons in the near future." His fingers swept beneath my jaw, brushing away as he stood. The work of a moment to put on his ring and vanish – how he’d slipped in so easily for our late chats, these past months. "Good night, Apprentice."
"...Good night." I whispered, stalk still and listening for the telltale creak of the door upstairs. I released my breath when it closed, collapsing onto my bed, gazing blankly above me. Wow.
Well, I certainly feel more mature now.